Review: Picnic with the Pops

Alexander Streltsov performs the Spinning Cube during the Lexington Philharmonic's production "Cirque de la Symphonie" at Keeneland. Photos by Matt Goins for the Lexington Herald-Leader

Alexander Streltsov performs the Spinning Cube during the Lexington Philharmonic’s production “Cirque de la Symphonie” at Keeneland. Photos by Matt Goins for the Lexington Herald-Leader

Movies are usually the way most audiences hear orchestral music these days.

As the action swells to a climax, the percussion rumbles and the winds blare, or romance is born in the gentle embrace of the strings. Despite decades of electronics, nothing has emerged that quite replicates a real orchestra for underscoring powerful moments.

Svetlana Ghetman performs on the aerial hoop.

Svetlana Ghetman performs on the aerial hoop.

That is exactly what the Lexington Philharmonic did at this year’s Picnic with the Pops performance Saturday night. The orchestra shared the stage with Cirque de la Symphonie, a troupe of international acrobatic artists who gather almost weekly to perform with symphony orchestras around the country.

For his first Picnic with the Pops, Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell got Lexington in on the act, and the result was a summer blockbuster of sight and sound – easily the best Picnic with the Pops I have attended.

In addition to being Terrell’s first Picnic, this was the first time in nearly three decades the event moved out of the Kentucky Horse Park, which could not host it this year due to preparations for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Keeneland was a more than splendid substitute. The field behind the Library and Entertainment Center formed a natural amphitheater with an open feel, easy parking and a westward orientation that let the more than 6,000 patrons watch the sunset as the show approached.

Twilight giving way to night helped refocus attention from the party in the audience to the performance on the stage, even if some patrons could never find an end to their conversations and there was a steady slam of porta potty doors through the show. The program was engaging enough that distractions fell away.

Bringing in Cirque actually enhanced the musical heft of the concert. No pop songs and showtunes here. There were a few things some may classify as “light classics” such as Les Toreadors from Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suite 1. But overall, this was a program filled with substantive orchestral music by composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Given the setting and size of the audience, the orchestra had to be amplified. The balance was good, and the orchestra sounded sharp and robust, even under the microscope of microphones.

With Cirque, the highest profile artists were the aerial acts, including Shana Lord on aerial silks and rope, Svetlana Ghetman performing on the ring and Alexander Streltsov giving a dramatic and dazzling silks performance to a selection of John Williams’ Star Wars music. Performing to Saint-Saëns Bacchanale from Samson et Delilah, Ghetman provided some of the evening’s best drama, her grip on the ring seeming to grow more and more tenuous as the music intensified.

In the open amphitheater of Keeneland, particularly perched atop the hill, where I was sitting, it was presumable that the floor performers may have had more trouble translating all the way to the back. That was hardly the case as Cirque de la Symphonie performers play big, Vladimir Tsarkov juggling his bright rings perilously high and Streltsov’s spinning cube making  a huge impression. Video screens helped Irina Burdetsky’s hula hoop performance and  contortionist Elena Tsarkova dazzle the audience front to back.

The grand finale, Jarek & Darek’s strongmen act, may have been the best demonstration of finely tuned physique of the evening. Unfortunately, for some of us, their performance to the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was somewhat marred by audience members heading to the exits. Their wagons filled with picnic gear rattled behind them as they left, as if they were in the fourth quarter of a football game where the outcome had already been decided instead of at a concert where the best is traditionally saved until last. Their haste to beat the crowd marred the final touchdown of the evening for some of us.

But by then, Terrell and his orchestra had already won the night. It seems under his baton, we will have to take Picnic with the Pops seriously.

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